(Courtney Jaye, Thad Cockrell, Jessie Baylin)
On Sunday night, The Basement hosted a book release party for Nasvillian Kristin Russel, whose new novel Recovering Ramona includes a fictional character who once had a fictional relationship with the late, great, decidedly non-fiction Gram Parsons. So it was all a bit of a tortured excuse to host a Gram Parsons tribute. But frankly, any reason to host a Gram Parsons tribute is an acceptable one.
And I'm apparently not the only one who thinks so. By the time Nashville artists Matthew Perryman Jones and Courtney Jaye took the stage to start the show at around 8:30, the place was all asses and elbows. As it turns out, that first song was the best Parsons cover of the night, a soulful rendition of "A Song for You."
Dabbs played an inspired take on "Wild Horses" (the Flying Burrito Brothers actually recorded the song before the Rolling Stones did), while Cockrell had the closing--and strongest--set of the night, in part because Cockrell's just a great live performer, but also because he was accompanied over the course of the set by Baylin, Perryman Jones, and Jaye. Sort of an all-star set of Nashville Americana.
All of which also gives me an excuse to hop on a hobbyhorse of mine. (Yes. You might call it a grievance.) : Parsons may be the most influential artist yet to be inducted to either the Rock and Roll or Country Music Hall(s) of Fame. And it's a damned shame.
I suppose there are a number of reasons for the oversight. He died young of a heroin overdose, six weeks too young even for the 27 Club. He didn't already have the commercial success of Hendrix or Joplin or Morrison when he died, so his death didn't have the same effect on his legacy as it did on theirs. He only put out two solo albums, along with two albums with the Flying Burrito Brothers, one with his first band the International Submarine Band, and he was basically a member of The Byrds for Sweetheart of the Rodeo. None of them sold particularly well.
Part of the problem may also be that neither Hall is entirely sure whether he belongs in one or the other. But that's also testament to Parsons' influence. He's now widely cited as the patriarch of Americana music, or what in the late 1990s/early 2000s we called alt country, and what Parsons himself dubbed "cosmic American music". In recent years, Nashville has become the hub of Americana. (People here seem to spend as much time touting the sound as they do trying to define it.)
There's a bit of irony in that. While Sweetheart was recorded on Nashville's Music Row, the first time Parsons and the Byrds played Nashville's venerable Ryman Auditorium in 1968, they were nearly heckled off the stage. Grand Ol' Opryans thought Roy Acuff went with patchouli like ice cream with mayonnaise. These California longhairs were fouling Oprytown with the stench of hippie--corrupting country's heart with the swagger of rock 'n' roll. The Byrds were never invited back. After the Ryman debacle the group then had a contentious on-air session with legendary Nashville DJ Ralph Emery. He didn't like them, either.
So the town that once wanted nothing to do with Gram Parsons now claims the sound he more than anyone else is largely credited with inventing. Or at least synthesizing and popularizing. How that happened is interesting, too. A big part of Americana's draw is its authenticity. It's a wide-reaching, amorphous collection of musical styles, but if there's one thing that defines Americana, it's roots. Its component parts--jazz, blues, gospel, country, bluegrass--sprang up from barns, fields, clubs, churches, street corners, and parlors--not recording studios. I think you could argue that much of Nashville's jones for Americana is a reaction to the polish and commercialization of soulless, big label country. When Parsons and his co-writer and co-vocalist, the Americana icon Emmylou Harris were asked by a Long Island DJ in the early 1970s what they thought of "progressive country", Harris quipped, with some truth, that she and Parsons actually played "regressive country."
Which means we've done some circling back, now. The Byrds and Parsons were booed at the Ryman because they were debasing real country with rock and roll. Now Americana has taken grip of Nashville because . . . . well, because it's more country than what's become of country. For these reasons and others, Rolling Stone put Parsons at #87 in its 2005 list of most influential rock artists of all time. Parsons brought country to rock. Brought some rock to country. And he left a legacy that, decades later, may actually give country back to country. So yes. Definitely. He deserves his place, in both Cleveland and Nashville.
If you're not buying any of that, induct him for no other reason than that he introduced the world to Emmylou Harris.
Here's my favorite Parsons song, "In My Hour of Darkness". Parsons wrote it for two childhood friends that had passed on before him. But the second verse reads rather hauntingly as if Parsons is mourning himself.